It was the French philosopher Brillat-Savarin who wrote, “The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves.” And it is this, his most famous idea, that is now never far from my mind when it comes to the discussion of school lunch in this country. When I read last week that there are those in Washington who would dismantle the recent positive gains that have been made in improving the way children are fed at school, I was appalled — yet sadly not surprised. As with many institutions and universal ideas in this nation in recent years, it seems that even something as right and as basic as feeding children food that is good for them has become politicized.
Right now we all need to pause, step back and look at the bigger picture. The costs associated with not investing in real food are too great, and we need to acknowledge honestly the far-reaching consequences that the current program has had in every area of American life. By allowing fast-food culture into the cafeteria, we have effectively endorsed that industry’s values, helped facilitate the obesity epidemic, widened the achievement gap and aided an addiction to junk. Even in the short term these costs, both tangible and intangible, dwarf the budget for a universal — and real — school food program. The idea of school lunch as an egalitarian mechanism to nourish our nation’s potential has long been discarded and devalued. We are faced with an enormous crisis of health, education and inequality.
We need to have the courage and conviction to establish a nutritious, sustainable, free school-lunch program for all.
The incremental steps the First Lady has fought for, as valuable as they are, are never going to address the challenges we are facing. Lunch must become integrated into the daily lessons. Like physical education, we need edible education. Until lunch becomes about learning and is central to school life, children and lunch ladies are bound to reject changes. A plan of this scope and scale may not be realistic in the current Congress, but it is where we must go. I truly believe that decisionmakers on both sides of politics will come to realize this is the most logical place to reach every child and have the most lasting impact. The public school system is our last truly democratic institution.
Having worked in it — and in this field — for more than 20 years with the Edible Schoolyard Project, I have seen that engaging all children at the table with a delicious meal made from real ingredients transforms their attitudes and behavior for life. By making lunch an interactive part of the curriculum, we empower children to make their own informed decisions.
When children learn about where their food comes from, their eyes open to the billion-dollar marketing campaigns that target them. They are also freed from the prison of fast-food addiction. It is my experience — and that of many other educators in the U.S. — that once there is a real alternative, children do not throw out their healthier options. In fact, they embrace those healthy foods and never look back.
I know that many in government on both sides of politics now realize that in food we find the root problem of many of our nation’s ills: diet-related disease, hunger, environmental devastation. And I am sure that by redirecting ourselves to real food, we find also the solution. We need to start at school. By radically changing the way we think about feeding our children, we not only change the nutrition of individual children and the diet of all Americans in a generation, we also restore the health of the land — and the essential values of this country.